How To Remove Human Blood From A Polyester Dress
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Theresa awoke, blind, in a bed that wasn't hers.

A quick feel told her what she needed to know. She wasn't bound to anything; no one was sleeping in the bed with her. While something was encrusted over her eyelids, nothing was directly blocking her line of sight. The bed itself was of high quality, at odds with the distressingly familiar scent of rotten meat and—

Ah.

Theresa groaned, rolling out of the bed and onto what was almost certainly exposed floorboards. Between then and now, JGT must have taken her boots; this wouldn't be a pleasant walk.

The door, when Theresa finally found it, was unlocked.

By the dimness and angle of the light that crept into the second floor hallway, it must have been roundabouts dawn. Had she been that worn out? Maybe this was another one of Just Girly Things's tricks. Maybe she'd step downstairs and have a dieting magazine blown through her head by a mortar. It'd be less embarrassing than the shame-shaped blur of yesterday's memories.

There was no dieting mortar downstairs; there was, however, a suspicious sound of cooking coming from the kitchen, and a dreadfully familiar humming to go along with it.

No one was inside the (now clean) kitchen as Theresa stepped inside. Some of the empty picture frames, however, were lit up with the image of Mrs. Schaeffer, wearing a beautiful sundress and attending to the kind of kitchen you'd expect servants in. True to form, she was looking straight into the camera. "Good morning, dear. Would that you were here, I've been told I make a lovely eierkuchen."

Theresa blinked. "That's one way to greet me."

"Would you rather it'd have been the mannequins?" Mrs. Schaeffer hummed. "I would send you some food, but KeeLee's not quite a fan of German cuisine."

"Where are my boots?"

"Hm?" Mrs. Schaeffer tilted her head.

"Where did you put my boots? I—" Theresa unconsciously palmed her coat pocket, only to find that she wasn't wearing her coat.

"Ah." Mrs. Schaeffer giggled. She never looked right, giggling like that. "KeeLee can be very stubborn, you must understand. I wanted you to rest. She wanted something best never to be spoken of." Nor did it look right when she tilted her head. "You did get rather aggressive with her."

Theresa looked down at herself. It was too dark to make out much, but she wasn't wearing her old outfit. What little she saw, it looked like she was wearing some kind of dress. It wasn't a bad dress, no; indeed, it felt rather comfortable, as comfortable as you could be in a dress that didn't belong to you. No pockets.

"Not to worry, Theresa. Your electronics are sitting by the front door, untouched, alongside your flats."

"That's low, even for JGT." Theresa's fingers were shaking; hopefully, nothing else noticed. "Just… damn."

When Mrs. Schaeffer finally broke eye contact, it was to pay more attention to her cooking. Even here, her grace was unnatural, like a high-end painting sustained for the entirety of her breakfast. Theresa almost didn't notice that she wore no mittens, that she kept her jewelry on, that she chopped her vegetables with nail-biting speed.

Theresa hadn't notice that she'd been ignored until Mrs. Schaeffer next spoke. "I must say, dear, you look quite good. KeeLee really brought out your natural beauty."

"Mm." Theresa crossed her arms. "This isn't me."

"Is it not?" Mrs. Schaeffer turned back to Theresa, or perhaps just something behind her. "How so?"

"It's just… this isn't me." Theresa swallowed. "This isn't a dress I'd wear. And I don't wear flats, or a purse, which I assume you put my electronics in."

"That was KeeLee, dear. We're several thousand kilometers apart." Mrs. Schaeffer hummed. "But what is Theresa Arianna Petrucci, then? Certainly, she's wearing a dress, and wearing it well. Would it have been more natural had she woken up in a tomato-caked suit jacket?"

Theresa winced. "You know what I mean. I'm… I'm GNC. I'm a Big Sister for the Line. A professional."

Mrs. Schaeffer made a… it was that 'cracking' sound again. "Come now, Theresa. Your organization makes such a point of how the clothes one wears don't automatically make one something they're not. And yet, when it comes to your dress," She giggled again, and it was somehow worse than the 'cracking'. "Safari pants and a jean jacket hardly earned you that coveted dream job, no? And if I'm not mistaken, one could say that you didn't quite live up to the Line's expectations."

Theresa grimaced. "What do you care? That's how I dress. My closet is my business, not KeeLee's, not yours, not anyone but me. That's not going to change."

Mrs. Schaeffer smiled, turning away once more to put the finishing touches on some kind of crepe. Then, she spoke. "When we first met, you called me 'Mrs. Schaeffer'. Indeed, I was married. Thrice, actually. All for the family business, of course. Yet when it came to my third husband, Lorian, it was like a peasant's love story."

Next, Mrs. Schaeffer got to plating some kind of meat dish. "We were the picture of a happy couple, you must understand. Me, the twice-widowed socialite, him, that dashing steel baron with a hint of darkness. We loved each other like a girl loves ponies, and all that time he'd never once suspected I was a recovering lesbian."

Theresa blinked. "… what?"

"Sure, like all couples we had our—"

"No, pump the breaks." Theresa furrowed her brow. "Recovering what?"

Surely Theresa didn't deserve the perplexed condescension Schaeffer looked upon her with. Right? Like, that wasn't how… how any of it worked, right? This wasn't Theresa being paranoid?

"Recovering lesbian, yes." Schaeffer didn't grin, or laugh, or stutter, or do anything she should have done after saying… that. Just continued like nothing. "It had been quite the obstacle in my first two marriages, you must understand."

"What are you saying? You can't…" Theresa shook her head. "You can't 'recover' from being a homosexual. That's not how it works."

"Is it really so different from the reparative therapy advocated by the Line of Sisters?" Schaeffer tilted her head, like it was Theresa who'd been unrealistic.

"Yes! Yes it is!"

"How?"

"Because… gah!" Theresa slammed her fist on the countertop. "It doesn't, it doesn't work like that! How would it even—"

A sharp reverb from the speakers cut Theresa off.

"Mind the furniture, dear."

"Quit the deflection, please." Not that Theresa expected anything less. Overt hostility followed by condescension seemed to be a pattern, here. "Look: if you're homosexual, you're homosexual. If you marry a man and it works out, you're not a homosexual. Unless you're telling me you have a memetic hazard for that?"

"Not quite, no." Finished with the meat dish, Schaeffer made her way to a cutting board. "There come benefits, with the Schaeffer family secrets. Beyond the money, of course, but there's a particular 'control' one allots over their own body. Tell me, Theresa: have you heard of the BLACK FLY?"

The last two words… stung, somehow.

Theresa furrowed her brow. "I'm from North Ontario. We have a song about blackflies."

"Not the kriebelmücke, no. BLACK FLY. It's a rather potent chemical, with a variety of uses, one might say." Reaching into a nearby bowl, Schaeffer pulled several leeks onto the board. "My hesitation was not an act of deflection, I should note. I fully intend to answer every question you have on the BLACK FLY. But my, what questions to be asked."

Schaeffer's movements as she pulled a knife from a nearby block felt almost deliberate. "The simple would tell you that the BLACK FLY is a cleaning chemical, a neurotoxin. In the hands of a brilliant chemist such as yourself, however, its potential is limitless. For when handled properly, Theresa? The BLACK FLY holds the secrets to the self.

"In proper doses, the BLACK FLY induces an interesting state of suggestion." Schaeffer took her time lining up the leeks. Like she wanted to make a point. "In tiny doses, you gain surprising control over yourself, if only for a while. I could do more than convince myself I wasn't a lesbian: I could make it so."

"That's… so it's only temporary. You're still a homosexual. Self-abuse isn't 'recovery'."

"By that logic, is not the reparative therapy championed by the Line, of a quantifiably lesser efficacy mind you, also self-abuse?" Schaeffer hummed, holding her knife about the leeks. "And do note: this is but a fraction of the BLACK FLY's true potential. In proper doses,"

Schaeffer lowered her knife, and a sound like a hatchet into wood cut through the air.

"The results are markedly less temporary."

Theresa opened her mouth to respond, and shut it when the words didn't come out.

Not that Schaeffer paid it any mind, chopping the leeks with (a now silent) diligence. "I digress, Theresa. When you talk of your wardrobe, you speak of it as an immutability. Perhaps you think it fortuitous, or perhaps an inevitable abhorrence; perhaps it's merely tolerable. But your wardrobe is merely what you've chosen to wear. It is not so immutable as your body, your heart, or your soul, and indeed, all that I've listed is not so immutable as you might think."

Finally, Schaeffer got to garnishing her assorted dishes. "Thank you for indulging me, dear, but I've important guests to entertain. Feel free to pay us a visit in the near future. I rather enjoy your company."

"Right." What a waste of time. Theresa rolled her eyes, and made her way for the exit.

… except that right at the precipice of the kitchen, Theresa found herself stopped by a nagging thought in the back of her head.

"Mrs. Schaeffer?"

"Yes, dear?"

Theresa licked her lips. "Have I been dosed with… with BLACK FLY?"

The pause that followed wrapped itself around Theresa like a fungus, seeped deeper into her skin than the tomato paste ever could. It couldn't have been anything less than deliberate.

"And what reason would we have to subject you to the BLACK FLY? You're much too fun to talk to, dear, and what good is aerosol against an aeromancer?

"And besides," Theresa could practically hear her grin. "You absolutely would have felt such a thing."

And the kitchen went dark once more.


According to the clock in her car, it was some time around 11 by the time Theresa pulled into her complex. The Wombyn's March was an hour underway. Who cared? Not Theresa, not dressed like this, not ever. Good riddance.

Theresa scanned the complex grounds for anyone else. Nobody could see her like this; she could hardly stand to looking at herself through the rear-view mirror. She might as well have been naked without her boots, without her jacket, stuck in some stupid dress and carrying some frilly purse full of everything a pocket could manage. Like a hermit crab without its shell.

She nearly stumbled stepping out of the car, and the walk to her apartment was no better. The difference between the flats and the boots couldn't have been more than a centimeter or two; she might as well have been walking on stilts before, the way it felt now.

But it'd all be over, soon. Just that much longer to her apartment, that much longer to her couch, that much longer to sleeping the nightmare off, and—

There, there upon the stairs that went up to Theresa's apartment, there was Hellen.

Theresa should have been angry, honestly. There Hellen was, dressed in her marching best, carrying a big basket of gifts, locs done up like she had a date, throwing Theresa the most pitiable damn expression she'd ever seen. But what did that matter? There was enough room to squeeze past her, forget she'd ever seen her like this, steam it all out with a vial of—

"Feather?!" Theresa was scrounging through the purse for her keychain when Hellen rushed up to the landing. "I'm so sorry, I lost you in the crowd and I didn't know where you'd gone and I'd thought the worst and… and I got worried, Feather." Setting her basket down, Hellen retrieved something from her fanny pack. "What happened?"

Just Theresa's luck, she'd be accosted by the most annoying of the Big Sisters. "Nothing, Hellen. I'm fine."

Hellen shook her head, and unfolded what Theresa now recognized as a pocket mirror, before holding it up for Theresa.

Two things:

  1. As much a violation of her privacy as it was, Theresa had to admit that the velvety purple dress she'd been gifted was rather nice.
  2. The tomato paste from yesterday was still there, crusted over her skin like poorly congealed greasepaint.

Putting away her pocket mirror, Hellen fidgeted through her fanny pack until she procured a packet of wet wipes. For her part, Theresa wasn't sure why she hadn't yet told Hellen to screw off. Maybe it was pity.

Theresa crossed her arms. "Why aren't you at the March?"

"Can't." Lord, was it that hard to open a packet of wet wipes? How'd Hellen become a Big Sister? "We can't go forward. Weilstedt and the Tongs… when they actually work together, you can't fight it. King of Hearts, too." Finally she'd opened them. "I'm sorry, Feather."

"It's fine, Hellen. Wasn't up for it, anyway."

Hellen nodded, gently taking Theresa's chin in her free hand and… pausing. Some inscrutable expression settled into her face. "… may I, Feather?"

Theresa sighed. "Sure."

Once again, Hellen nodded, stood up on her toes, and

kissed Theresa.

Theresa couldn't remember the last time she'd been kissed; grad, maybe. Had it always felt like the palm of a hand pressed into her lips? Did all kisses taste of warm chalk? Was it supposed to feel so uncomfortably close? Kisses were supposed to feel good; this felt like nothing.

Hellen pulled away, adjusting her glasses. "Everything alright, Feather?"

"Thought you meant you wanted to clean my face."

At that Hellen startled, suddenly unable to keep eye contact. "Oh, um… right." She nodded. "Sorry, I… I'm sorry, Feather. You…" Biting her lip, Hellen made what was almost eye contact before wiping at the tomato paste, her unfocused swipes almost as awkward as the kissing.

This was stupid, actually.

Theresa's hand went for her purse, rifling through until she'd found her keys. Then, turning away from Hellen ("You should hold still, wait—"), Theresa walked over to her door, opened it, and stepped inside.

"Wait, Feather." Unfortunately for Theresa, she hadn't closed the door fast enough to keep Hellen from following behind. "I have some gifts, you know, consolation for—"

Hellen cut herself off with a scream. It took a few seconds for Theresa to figure out why.

… honestly, she probably should have been furious at the mess, or overcome with grief at the sight of it all. But… looking at Sharon's rigid and dirtied corpse, all Theresa could think was that she'd never have to spend another cent on vet visits.


The JGT house was just as haunted-looking as it had always been, but there was something different about it this time. Maybe the ominous air had worn thin after the second visit. Maybe the sun wasn't casting the shadows as harshly as it once had. Maybe it was because Theresa wasn't here to break anything.

Or maybe it was the scent of rot that pervaded the trip to the house.

Theresa couldn't help it. There were surprisingly few online resources on how to keep a dead cat from stinking without formaldehyde. Triple-bagging it hadn't seemed to work, not when it came to burlap. Maybe her nose was just too sensitive.

Well. It'd be over soon.

Someone had outlined a spot on the curb for her car in pink chalk. Theresa half considered asshole parking on its edge, though what she planned to do was tempting fate enough. Theresa knew too much for JGT to press charges; that didn't stop them from extralegal retaliation.

Whatever.

Theresa got out of the car, burlap in hand (and as far from Theresa's nose as possible). Taking the shovel from the back, Theresa gave one last look around her for anyone who might be watching.

All clear.

Theresa tossed the sack into the tallest patch of lawngrass available, before making her way to the second tallest patch and planting her shovel as far as it'd let her. That wasn't much; the undergrowth was dead-set on drawing this out as long as it could.

Damn it. How'd Theresa let herself get so weak? She'd been a damn wrestler in college, and here she was struggling to dig a hole.

The sack was starting to smell.

Maybe it was a mistake to keep Sharon as long as she had. There's only so long you can keep a dead cat before it actually starts to die. Call it sentimentality, the need for justice to be done no matter the cost. Theresa wasn't sure whether she was thinking about Sharon pre- or post-mortem.

The sack baked in the sun.

Stupid Hellen, trying to suck Theresa for all she was worth. Stupid house, trying to manipulate her like that. Stupid apartment, bending to the whims of a dead cat walking. Stupid El, getting Theresa stuck in this mess. Stupid Sharon, living and dying like she did. Stupid Theresa, thinking she could take care of Sharon. Stupid Theresa. Stupid Theresa. Stupid fucking Theresa.

And then the hole was big enough.

If there were any rites to be held for a dead cat, Theresa didn't know them. Maybe a quiet prayer to herself that the sack wouldn't burst open when she tossed it in the hole. Perhaps just the hope that no one would notice a woman like Theresa burying something in someone else's front yard.

Theresa was almost disappointed that neither came to pass. Maybe that's why, after dropping the shovel back off in her car, she went back for the house.

The door was open, and that telltale giggling was already coming from inside. At least the mannequins weren't attacking.

"Theresa, dear." From every vacant picture frame shone the image of Mrs. Schaeffer, calmly sipping her tea in that well-lit pastel bedroom. "I'm surprised to see you offering sacrifice, and doubly so towards KeeLee."

"KeeLee didn't want my dead cat in her front yard, she shouldn't have killed it." The smell of rotten flesh was surprisingly tolerable this time around. "Though I'm starting to think she's a figurehead."

Schaeffer tilted her head, and somehow did nothing else as her image flickered from frame to frame as Theresa made her way down the hall. "That was your cat, then. My, such dedication. And all for a women who can't yet appreciate what you've done for her."

Theresa groaned, stopping in place before what looked to be a home office. "I'm not in the mood for this, alright? I didn't kill Sharon. KeeLee did. KeeLee—" Theresa's unconscious gesturing had just slammed her elbow into the wall. "Sorry, sorry! Accident."

More cracking from Schaeffer. "KeeLee might have threatened to kill your cat, certainly, though she's in no state to do such a thing. How did it die, exactly?"

"And what do you care?" Theresa's legs dragged her onwards, barely cognizant enough not to bump into anything. Not like the office was any different than most of the house. "She… she wasn't bloodier than normal. Messy, maybe, but that's Sharon." Theresa swallowed. "Something killed her, and it wasn't me."

Schaeffer hummed. "'Bloodier than normal', you say. It was chronically ill, then."

"Not even the half of it." The desk was clear enough to sit on, at least. "That cat was bound to keel over any second. But something killed her, alright, and KeeLee's the only thing in recent memory that's made a threat of it."

"Could it, and I mean no offense in bringing this up, but could it be that, without your supervision," Schaeffer tilted her head, in the other direction this time. "It simply expired?"

Theresa swallowed. Her gaze fell to a thin puddle of sunlight on the floor.

Schaeffer giggled again. "I sincerely apologize, then. Had you told us you had a sickly animal to attend to, perhaps we would have been more considerate in our invitations."

"It's fine. Sharon's dead. I won't bring her back to life."

Silence, for a while, save the purring of the house. Theresa never thought such a calm could settle over this house; then again, she never pictured herself returning of her own volition. Nevertheless, Schaeffer sipped her tea, and Theresa stared at the floor.

"Something's bothering you, no?"

Theresa looked up. "And you haven't noticed? Not like you don't know my name, address, and profession."

"I only know what KeeLee shares. But even that, dear, is precarious." Schaeffer either punctuated or interrupted her words with a sip of tea. "You've seen KeeLee. She's remarkably obtuse. You're rather lucky, actually; she was quite a bit worse when I met her four years ago."

"Yeah?"

"Quite." Schaeffer smiled. "You might be surprised to know that KeeLee was once a programmer. Certainly, I was surprised."

Theresa nodded. "Pretty shocking, what I seen." She palmed her coat pocket. "You talk about her like I've met her before. Let me guess: she's not as in-control as you'd like me to believe."

Schaeffer actually laughed.

"No guff." Theresa removed the e-cig from her coat, bringing it to her mouth. "You mind if I vape? She mind if I vape? You'll excuse me, my cat just died and…" Theresa shrugged. "… I don't know how else to process this."

"'And'." She even tutted like a storybook queen. "And what, darling?"

"Hellen…" Theresa licked her lips, taking the e-cig into her teeth. "You already know who Hellen is, right? You seem to know everything these days. Bet you already know that she kissed me."

Schaeffer blinked. How did she make something so simple so conspicuous? "Hellen Martinez. I don't know much more than her name and her… peculiarities. And you say that she kissed you?"

"Right on the lips." Theresa… didn't light her e-cig.

"Well," Schaeffer broke eye contact. "… an odd thing to bring up, at least out of the blue. Surely, you don't intend to… pursue such a relationship, no?"

"Jealous? Don't bother. I don't swing that way." Muscle memory forced an inhale. "… I don't know why I'm telling you this. Maybe it's because you're the only person I can stand to talk to. You don't feel like a brainwashed idiot. Which I guess is ironic, given…" Theresa shook her head. "… maybe I'm just… curious."

The puddle of light on the floor briefly disappeared. Theresa removed the e-cig from her mouth and mimed an exhale.

"… when you talked about black… about BLACK FLY, you mentioned permanency. But you implied… well, you told me you microdosed. Why not go all the way?"

Schaeffer hummed. "The sort of state a proper dose entails is the sort of state that, unfortunately, robs one of agency. It must be someone else attending to one's metamorphosis, of a simultaneous benevolence and competency that in of themselves occur in extreme rarity. You simply cannot trust it to go as you wish."

Theresa clicked her tongue. "Someone as rich as yourself… I mean, I don't think you should. But it feels like you could."

"I suppose you could think of it like this." Schaeffer set her teacup down. "We're of the same ideological mind, no? 'Man is not woman, woman is not man'."

Theresa grimaced. "I'm a radical feminist. We're about… we're about gender abolition."

"And I'm a traditional feminist, yet we still agree that man cannot be woman, that woman cannot be man; else, would not the transsexual be justified in its perversions?"

"Mm. I guess we're on that page."

Schaeffer nodded. "Quite. Now, let's say you're a transsexual, and you want to fix that. You've access to a chemical that can change the very nature of your being. All you have to do is find someone willing and able to reach within you and make things right."

"But… you can't trust just anyone to do that, is that it?"

"Close: it's that you can't trust anyone." Schaeffer picked up her teacup, gently swirling it with a practiced deliberation. "Your peers refuse to cure you; to do so would be to elucidate their own folly. And yet, can you truly put yourself in the hands of a doctor? One that barely understands you as a person? They're more likely to play you for a lab rat. And truly I mean no offense, Theresa, but I want you to imagine a poor little girl, sick to death with those Jewish criminals' chemicals, approaching you of all people for help."

Try as she might, Theresa's thoughts only got as far as El, trembling in her seat in a greasy pizzeria.

No. She shook her head. "I get what you're trying to say, but… I still don't think you should do it. Homosexuality's real."

"And yet a transsexual, capable of externally, hormonally, psychologically, and thaumically impersonating the opposite gender, has not a sliver of said gender in its person?" Schaeffer sighed, theatric almost to the point of rhetorical. "What is does not necessarily correspond to what should be, Theresa. I should not be a lesbian."

Right, screw decorum. Theresa switched her e-cig on, taking a careful inhale; the house's scent mingled with the vapor, but she wasn't doing this for taste.

Theresa exhaled, took the e-cig out of her mouth to speak, but the words weren't coming any faster than the cravings. What should have been a rebuttal degenerated into introspection; what should have been introspection collapsed into a stew of emotions. By the time that collapsed, Theresa wasn't sure what to call it.

"… you might be the most…" Theresa took another hit of her e-cig, nearly choking on the rot-scented lemon. "… I don't know. Nothing makes sense." She shook her head. "Nothing makes sense."

Theresa wasn't sure when exactly the picture frames went black and she'd been left in the literal dark; but at least she'd been given her smoke break. KeeLee and Schaeffer let her have that, at least.


The first thing Theresa did once she was home was tearing up the newspapering over the floor. Seeing her apartment's carpeting for the first time in years should have felt satisfying; but here, standing on the speckled shag, all she felt was out of place.

And of course, she still had to clean everything off.

Sharon had been reasonably good about pissing in her litterbox, but that was by the standards of Sharon; with that in mind, Theresa probably shouldn't have started with a bleach-based cleaner. But screw it, right? Wasn't like a little gas could kill her. Seal it in an air-tight, sort it into the shelf, back to work.

The litter was dumped into the toilet; the litterbox, into a dumpster. Cat food with it. As for Sharon's medicine… she'd figure something out.

Hours turned into days.

Hellen called often. Apologies, mostly, either for Sharon or for kissing Theresa, or something inscrutable that could be confused for one of the above. Lord, and they said Canadians apologized.

El didn't call.

Theresa wasn't sure who else she had to care about.

Days turned into weeks.

Grants came when they came. Apparently, being publicly embarrassed on live TV didn't stop you from getting paid to make art, not even for the organization whose name you dragged through the mud. As for professional callbacks, Theresa got about as many as she'd always gotten.

In fact, for a woman who'd went up against multiple mafias, Theresa went shockingly unmolested by thug or assassin. But that was for now; sooner or later, they'd strike back. As for why the thought filled her with an inexplicable giddiness, Theresa didn't have the money for a therapist.

Projects stalled; but then again, what projects was she working on? There were only so many chemicals you could write about before it'd be cheaper and easier to drive to a crafts store. She'd just make art.

She'd just make art forever.

Weeks turned into three and a half months.


Theresa had been blankly staring at a half-full vial of chloramine gas when the knock came. Singular; that ruled out Caryn (thank the Lord) and her landlord.

She sighed, putting the vial back onto the makeshift rack and heading for the door. On one hand, Theresa knew of no one she'd care to drop by, at least not among the pool of people who would. But what else did she have to do but rot away? Not like this was interrupting anything.

Theresa opened the door. "Is there a—"

Before her door stood a modest cardboard box and nothing else.

Theresa furrowed her brow. She hadn't ordered anything, and a quick examination of the package revealed no company logo. Moreover, though the return address was obviously BackDoor, it wasn't anything she'd memorized.

Sniffing the package, Theresa couldn't identify any out-of-place chemical agents. A quick tilt back and forth gave the impression of a box filled with… letters? Paperwork? Something light, packed loosely enough to slide against one another, but still far too packed to be the work of a single person.

BackTalk viewer mail? Mafia trickery? Something else? Whatever it was, the fact that it hadn't gone through the complex delivery system was troubling.

Theresa took the package over her shoulder, carrying it to the apartment commons. She wouldn't necessarily have called it "shockingly heavy", though paper took on surprising weight in higher quantities.

The office was open. Theresa could have requested assistance. Instead, she laid the box down onto a nearby table, took out her keys, and cut the tape holding the flaps closed.

… it was letters. Lots of them.

Sifting through the letters posed more questions than it answered. Not all of the letters were from the same address; many were, however, even as different hands penned various phrases of differing sentiment upon their envelopes. Some of them were directly addressed to Theresa, others to that mysterious return address, and still more to a variety of BackDoor addresses Theresa hardly recognized.

Theresa looked over her shoulder, and opened one from an address that had penned several more:

dear Toby Clarke

Hello. My name is Sofer, and I watched your show for a class on letter-writing. The episode I watched was the one with your replacement, and also the TERF that

How cute, little kid was learning lingo too advanced for its age.

Theresa shook her head. She wasn't about to get angry at a child, not in public at least. Maybe a letter that hadn't been authored by school kids.

Greetings and well-wishes from the Keaton Institute, Ms. Petrucci.

As the art scene of the BackDoor evolves, so too must its audience; yet there are times when an artist is born too early, his or her skill ill-fit with the wants and demands of the populace around him or her. We at the Keaton Institute recognize, however, that art exists for the sake of all humanity, and not just the prevailing evils of the times.

We at the Keaton Institute heartily applaud you for taking a stance against the liberal queer agenda that

Theresa tossed the letter, and tried not to think about the fact that most of her grants had come from the Keaton Institute.

This didn't make sense. On one hand, the box was full of letters from literal children shaming her for a bad TV day, and yet on the other hand, whoever compiled such a thing saw fit to include letters of praise (however questionable). Whatever it was, Theresa wasn't having a good time.

There had to be a reason for this. One last letter.

Theresa pulled a crimson envelope from the box, tore open the seal, and began reading.

[But there was nothing to read.]

[Instead, Theresa found herself assaulted by an indiscernible fractal. Chains interlocked with chains interlocked with interlocking chains, interlocked with a chain of interlocking chains, a background and foreground anchored forever inward.]

[An unspeakable calm shot itself through Theresa, rippled through her blood like dye into water. Something was missing, something was fading. She felt so unbearable light.]

[She

Theresa tore herself away from the paper and reeled at a sudden rush of feeling, an intensity beyond words. She bit her lip; it was barely enough to keep from screaming.

Someone… someone had tried to brainwash her. It should have been obvious: the sole red envelope, the way the package had been left out like a letter bomb, the soft condemnations of the fellow letters (no matter how limp-dicked). It's the only thing that made sense. But who would…

the mafias.

It had to be them, right? Who else had this many skeletons to pick with Theresa? Of course it'd be someone with a profit motive, or else why spend the time and money for such a stunt? And Sofer… that had to be a Kosher Nostra name. Who else?

They'd made their opening move. There'd be more to come. She couldn't go back to her apartment.

She couldn't stay in the city.

But where did—


Theresa slammed her car door shut, barely checking for stalkers or onlookers as she bolted for the house.

But the door was locked.

Theresa grit her teeth. What if they tracked her here? Had she already been tracked? Was this forgone? These thoughts shouldn't have had the time to be asked. Why now?

And the door was still locked.

JGT's doorbell was still exposed; that left Theresa rapping against the door. It was too loud, someone could hear her, but what choice did she have? They had to hear her somehow. They had to.

But the door was still locked.

Theresa threw a glance back, but the clear neighborhood was misleading; for why would a stalker want to be seen, and how could she trust herself to see everyone hiding in their houses? Now was the time to be unseen. Now was the time to hide. Now was the time for the door to open, please open, I'm begging you—

Theresa fell forward onto dirtied floorboards, barely cognizant of the scent of rotten meat before the door closed once more.

No matter. She was safe.

Standing up, Theresa flipped her phone's flashlight and took stock of the entry hallway. It wasn't any cleaner than the last few times; indeed, some of the vermin looked too fresh to be leftovers. Behind her, standing against the door, was one of KeeLee's mannequins. Theresa never thought she'd be glad to see one again.

The picture frames crackled on, lit up with the image of Mrs. Schaeffer reclined on some expensive couch with an unmarked book.

"Is something the matter, dear?" Schaeffer didn't look up from her book. "I don't think I've ever seen you quite so desperate to enter this house."

"You don't already know? Thought…" Theresa clutched her forehead. "… I'm being hunted."

Schaeffer hummed, flipping a page in her book. "That's a shame, but it's not much to work with. Rest assured, we won't let any harm come to our guest, but we would appreciate a warning."

"You want a warning? You want a warning?" It was with great restraint that Theresa didn't slam her fist onto a nearby dresser. "I'm feeling left out. You're telling me you know everything about me, and in a town where you can't sneeze without hitting mob property, you don't know when the mob moves for me?"

Schaeffer finally looked away from her book, thank the Lord. "The mob is after you? Let it not be said that the Jews aren't patient." Marking her place in her book and smoothing out her dress, Schaeffer sat up. "Though why now?"

"I…" There's mouth was dry, she'd only just realized. "I don't know. But it was only today they acted. You'd know this, right?"

"KeeLee might. I trust you too much to spend a fortune infiltrating the mob." Schaeffer giggled. "But would you like me to, dear? Such brilliance deserves to be preserved."

"Is this a joke to you?"

"Far from it, dear. This is an incredibly concerning development." But not enough to keep sporting that twinkling smile of hers, apparently. "If they're willing to mobilize against you, Theresa, whose to say when they'll stop? Losing you would be bad enough, but when they get away with your murder, and they have the money to get away with it, when's to say where they'll stop?"

The roaring crowds of months past blinked through Theresa's mind.

Schaeffer dropped her smile. "There's no coexistence, Theresa. The mutilation you oppose is violence; why shouldn't they answer your opposition with yet more violence?"

"But they didn't." Theresa unconsciously palmed her cardigan's— no, her pocket was empty. "They tried to brainwash me."

Schaeffer shook her head; it somehow resolved into another one of her cracks. "Brainwashing, murdering, torturing, there's no meaningful difference. You're in the way of their master plan, and they can't have that."

A cold and uneasy jolt shot through Theresa as Schaeffer leaned forward. "Do you think they'll stop when they realize the first brainwash didn't take?" Schaeffer tutted, a sound akin to fingers tapping ceramic. "You give our enemies too much credit, Theresa. As long as you stand for what's right, they'll try to cut you down."

Theresa's hand went back to her empty cardigan pocket.

"It's a shame, no?" Schaeffer cracked again. "You're the best of the Line, the only one willing to stand up to that criminal New York agenda. The world can't afford to lose someone like you."

Theresa crossed her arms, fingers digging into her sides.

"But," and much to Theresa's unexpected relief, Schaeffer sat back in her seat. "What if the world didn't have to lose you?" Schaeffer lips curled into a smile. "What if there was an organization dedicated to the empowerment, safety, and integrity of womanhood, backed with considerable funding and managed by a woman of impeccable investigative ability?"

Schaeffer's voice seemed to drop to a whisper, and yet it was as clear as if she'd been talking into Theresa's ear. "And what if, when that disgusting horde next comes for your head, it was greeted by the BLACK FLY?"

Theresa opened her mouth, and nothing came out.

"I'm afraid we'll have cut this short, for now, but I implore you to come back at noon tomorrow." Schaeffer's smile brightened. Her teeth were so impossibly white. "I'd like to conduct an in-person interview."

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